007: How OKC Improv Built an Audience Through Community Engagement

By July 29, 2016 July 29th, 2019 No Comments

Ann-Lisette Caveny discusses how to learn improv and it’s benefits, how start an improv troupe and find a venue to perform shows, and how OKC Improv built their audience through community engagement.

Ann-Lisette holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from the University of Central Oklahoma and has been performing improv for over 10 years. She currently performs with Heel Turn, Everybody and Their Dog, KHALC, and performs at various festivals across the country. Ann-Lisette has performed with OKC Improv since it’s creation in 2009, and she currently teaches and works for the non-profit as the Assistant Managing Director.


WILLIAM: Today, we are talking with our client Ann-Lisette Caveny from OKC Improv. Now, before I introduce her, I just want to say that I was able to perform with OKC Improv when it started and watch it grow to having shows every weekend and having five different levels of improv classes that are constantly full.

Our guest, Ann-Lisette, played a major role in its growth. She holds a BFA in Theatre Arts from the University of Central Oklahoma and has been performing improv for over 10 years. She currently performs with Heel Turn, Everybody and Their Dog, KHALC, and performs at various festivals across the country. Ann-Lisette has performed with OKC Improv since its creation in 2009, and she currently teaches and works for the non-profit as the Assistant Managing Director.

In this episode, we discuss how to learn improv and its benefits, how to start an improv troupe and find a venue to perform shows and how OKC Improv built their audience through community engagement. Let’s get into it.

Hey Ann-Lisette, I’m super excited to be chatting with you today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what got you involved with OKC Improv?

ANN-LISETTE: Sure. I actually started as an actress very young because my aunt is active in local theatre, and so I went to college to get a theatre degree and become an actress, and lo and behold, I discovered that I would prefer to be an improviser because I very much enjoy making up my own script rather than memorizing lines and acting the way that I’m told to. Whereas in improve, you can write it yourself. You write the whole play, everything yourself.

By the time I graduated college, I was in one improv troupe and the longest-running troupe in Oklahoma called “Everybody and Their Dog.” I was asked by one of my college professors and they were one of the few practicing troupes around Oklahoma City back in 2009 when OKC Improv was created.

In December of 2009, OKC Improv was founded as a 501c3 before we got our certification, but as a non-profit, and became a performance venue for several improv troupes around the city. But then, we also began teaching classes for adults level 1, level 2 improv classes, which improv could benefit you in many ways. And so, they’re a very helpful class around the community.

And then, those people started becoming friends and creating a community with all of us, therefore creating troupes as well. New troupes began to pop up and those were new people we could put on stage, new people that invited their friends and really just grew the community of OKC Improv.

And just to give you a little bit about improv, it’s unscripted theatre. So, everything is made up based on the audience’s suggestions with some to little, to no structure, if at all. It’s one of those things where the main pillars is that you support each other, and agree with each other, and add to the scene with each other.

So, it’s a very supportive community and that fostered a really growing supportive community in terms of offstage and with the people of Oklahoma City that found a home and found something in common that they wanted to do, and that gave them joy.

WILLIAM: And you’ve touched on this a little bit, can you talk about some of the benefits because you said you have classes, like Level 1, Level 2, Level 3, what are some of the benefits of attending improv, learning improv and even performing with a troupe?

ANN-LISETTE: Sure. So, the most common thing that people come and say when they take our Level 1 classes is that they want to get better at thinking on their feet. So, that is one of the main benefits, just being ready, being in the moment, and ready to create something without feeling pressured or upset about it.

So, learning improv is not only a great tool for adults but it’s a very great tool for kids, too. We just finished our Summer Library Tour where we taught improv to kids of all ages across the Oklahoma City metro and the state, when it comes to teaching them that everything is right.

The cool thing about improv is that every single thing you say is the right answer and you just go with it. So, when kids are nervous and they aren’t sure what to say, they really appreciate it when they say anything and then you celebrate it because that is, whatever it is, is the right answer.

So, it builds confidence, it improves your listening and speaking skills, and of course, just gets you out of your comfort zone. But there are a hundred million reasons people take our classes of all ages, yeah.

WILLIAM: So, if I’m in a town and there’s not really a lot of improv around me or if I want to somehow start improv, what’s the best way to start that? Do you recommend books, a podcast, just trying to Google “Improv in my city,” and just kind of go from there? What do you suggest for a kind of first time improvers that they should do?

ANN-LISETTE: Well, definitely, Google is an effective tool because we have had a lot of people say that they Googled “Improv” or “Improv comedy” and found OKC Improv. But, the best place to start, I would say, would be to make sure that you know what improv is.

So, the best way to do that would be to go see a show, I would think. If you don’t have access to improv shows in your area, there’s, of course, tapings of Whose Line is it Anyway, the old and the new and the British and the American and several versions of improv on TV. But, the best thing would be to go see a show and see how it makes you feel.

Many people are inspired and will see what happens on stage and that once we tell them, “Hey, you can do this too. All you have to do is sign up,” because again, anything is the right answer. So, as long as you sign up and take that first step for the class, that’s a huge step and that’s very brave.

Books and podcasts are great. They’re very informative. They’re a little hard to grasp if you haven’t seen live improv, but once you start studying books and podcasts with guests, and they have several improv-based podcasts that you can listen to and really just chalk up on your improv history, improv knowledge, and you’re shop talk, if you will.

WILLIAM: And I guess you really need to do improv with a group of people. It’s kind of difficult to do it with yourself, right?

ANN-LISETTE: Right. There are one-man improv shows. Those exists. But, if you’re starting out, that’s obviously not ideal. The best way to start doing improv with other people would be to take a class because we have classes at OKC Improv and we have up to five levels right now. We’re just working on a sixth.

WILLIAM: Wow! You guys have really grown.

ANN-LISETTE: Yes. Classes usually form troupes because they’ll work with each other for a couple of terms through Level 1 and 2 and 3. Each class isn’t the exact same group of people, so you never know how these troupes are going to form. They’re usually very organic because it’s kind of who melds well with each other and who gets along and has similar group mind as we call it. Similar comedy brains. So, you never know how they’re going to form, but classes…

WILLIAM: Now, you said improv troupe, could you just explain what that is really quickly?

ANN-LISETTE: Sure. An improv troupe, they call them improv troupes or teams, but an improv team or troupe would be a group of people that agree that you should have a name and either a structure or some type of–I don’t want to say gimmick–but something that sets them apart from the other improv troupes.

They have to do a certain format or they do a certain type of show inspired by a certain suggestion or what have you. It’s just a group of people that has rehearsed together, and performed together, and agreed that they will be a group for as long as they want to be until it’s either time for some of them to leave and you have casting or sometimes they just disappear, it just depends on the troupe. But, a lot of times, in Chicago and New York, they end up being successful and sometimes get a TV pilot or sometimes a sketch show.

WILLIAM: Let’s say I want to start an improv troupe and I’m just trying to find somewhere to perform. What are some things you could chat about with marketing an improv troupe, like do I go to schools, do I go to theatres? Where can I perform as an improv troupe once I’ve got something together?

ANN-LISETTE: That’s the really cool thing about OKC Improv is that before OKC Improv, like I said, there were a few practicing troupes and one of which was mine and we would go perform at bars where there was a gig available, space and time, a stage-ish, you know, sometimes not a stage, but the space is available.

We would perform at restaurants and festivals and the state fair and stuff. So, it’s really hard to find improv gigs if there’s no theatres that put up improv, but you can do it.

You can go to libraries or schools and if you have a business like presentation of why the improv would benefit the kids, you might be able to get a gig or two out of that. But as far as finding a regular place to perform, you could go to a theatre or theatre company and negotiate a time with them with their space so that you could go up in their dark times.

So, if they ran a play for four weeks, after their end, then you could run your improv shows for four weeks while they rehearse their next show. And that’s if they had complete creative control over a space, if they had their own theater.

That’s how we actually started with the company called Ghost Light Theatre. They had the space and we agreed to, you know, it’s very inexpensive and I won’t say easy because it does require rehearsal and practice and stuff, but it’s very low maintenance to put up an improv show. And so, you don’t have to have the props or the scenes or the scenery or anything like that. You just need performers, lights, and seats.

WILLIAM: And I guess if the theatre is even working on their set design, I remember back at Ghost Light Theatre that sometimes, we would perform with the set in the background.


WILLIAM: And we just wouldn’t move it, so even if a theatre is packed with stage props, you can just move them over to the side and you can still do your improv right in front of that set.

ANN-LISETTE: Right. We’ve done many improv shows in front of a dungeon set, or a bar, or a house, or something because in improv, everything is painted in the mind.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a black curtain of nothing or if it’s a beautiful wooden castle or dungeon set. If people are going to go with it, because everything is in your mind in improv.

WILLIAM: That’s awesome. So, it’s pretty flexible where an improv troupe can perform.

ANN-LISETTE: Yeah. It’s kind of like back in olden theatre days, they would do found spaces when they did Shakespeare and stuff, I mean, there was no place to put up shows, so they would just create spaces like, well, if this has lights and seats, or maybe a bar where they can get drinks, then we’ll do an improv show here. And that’s what we were doing until OKC Improv was founded and partnered with Ghost Light to get an actual theatre.

WILLIAM: Now, to look at the set at a different angle, if you’re a theatre and you’ve got some down time between shows, improv might be an excellent option to bring people into the theatre and get people seeing improv, but also, to sell your productions. Can you chat a little bit about how that might be helpful?

ANN-LISETTE: Right. Well, like I said I started, I would say, I don’t label myself as an actress anymore. I really identify as an improviser, but I started out in the theatre world thinking I was going to be an actress or thinking I was an actress. And so, those communities are very tied to the theatre communities.

It’s always a small world. I don’t care what city it’s in. Everybody pretty much knows everybody. A lot of those people are often interested in improv or they’re good at improv because improv began as warm up for theatre exercises and acting exercises. They would be like warm up and then they would do a couple of improv games to get them ready for their play. It wasn’t until way later when the father of improv, Del Close, came along and basically said, “Hey, improv is it’s own art form.” It’s not just used for warm-ups for acting. It’s a real thing in itself.

And so, if you are a theatre and you’re active in the theatre community, talk to your friends. Talk to any directors or any other people, even if you don’t know anybody. If you go to an audition, talk to people out on an audition and say, “Hey, do you do improv? Do you like improv? Have you ever done it? Would you be interested?”

I’ve seen lists on Craigslist saying, “Hey, I just want to get together and do some funny stuff.” They don’t necessarily label it improv because they’re not sure what they want to do. They just want to get together and rift and jam and be funny and chat, and that’s improv.

There’s always going to be people out there wanting to do it and wanting to find that joy that improv brings you, the joy of creating something, and having people positively reinforce you by laughing at it and you think, “Oh, I just made that up.” It’s a very weird feeling. That’s what we found and hooked us to improv.

We started in 2009 with, I believe, and I could be wrong on this, but I believe there were four practicing troupes, if I remember correctly. Now, we have 30 or 40 just spawned. They’ve come up and some of them have broken up and formed new troupes and kind of switched around, but either way, we’re fostering a community here.

So, what we found was that all we had to do was create OKC Improv and unite it, not only those four troupes that were already performing and doing gigs at bars and colleges around the metro, but those were just a few people out of the many people. We found so many more people in Oklahoma City that were interested and ready to do improv and they just didn’t know it yet.

They didn’t have the ability or the networking to create a troupe and go perform at a bar, but as soon as you say, “Hey, do you want to do a class and learn improv or get better at it?” Of course, everyone is going to sign up and all of a sudden, we had this wonderful community of people who love each other. It’s really cool.

WILLIAM: Can you talk about the demographics of people that do improv? I know a lot of times theatres are looking for ways to get younger people involved in their community. Can you share what kind of demographics you have with people doing improv and then, how that might transfer over to getting improv people to attend theatre shows?

ANN-LISETTE: I wouldn’t say we have any average age of an improviser or average, really, anything because the community is just so vast. We have people who are going along in their life doing their career and they’re still searching for something more. And, that is what we provide.

We have doctors and lawyers. We actually have two lawyers who met in improv and then ended up creating a firm together, but they met through our classes.

WILLIAM: Oh, wow!

ANN-LISETTE: Yeah! And we have accountants, businesswomen, businessmen, just about anybody you can imagine, they’re taking an improv class. Then, there’s a lot of young people, too. We have a decent amount of young men and young women, you know, millennials. I have a few teens that are discovering improv are really at 16, 19, 20, stuff like that.

We also have a lot of people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s who are just going along in life and searching for something more, searching for an outlet. This is quite, literally, a creative outlet for many people and a lot of people don’t have that opportunity in their life.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very artistic family and a very artistic supportive world. And so, I was always told, “Yes, you can do this and we encourage you.” But, not everyone was so fortunate and a lot of people feel stifled just because — They maybe conventionally successful as a doctor or a business person where they get up and go to their job, and get promotions, and do well, and they have their kids and their family.

Everything is great, but don’t have a creative outlet for all that creativity and inspiration that they already have right there. That’s the cool thing about improv is we always say everything is already right there. You don’t have to make it up because it’s all within you.

So, it’s just really cool that people have found that outlet and that they are enjoying it because it really is a life-changing opportunity. It’s a life-changing situation when you discover improv.

WILLIAM: Yeah, I agree. You mentioned how you helped engage your community. Do you think classes were vital to building that community?

ANN-LISETTE: I 100% agree, yeah. The classes were one of the main reasons because that’s the cool thing about improv is that you don’t have to go to school to even be able to teach improv. Two of our co-founders, Buck and Clint Vrazel, they were able to create classes and offer people a skill that they had and could pass on to people, and that is what people want to do to start off.

They don’t want to come into the community and immediately be thrown on stage without any preparation. They want to learn how to do it so that they can learn the best way to do it to sharpen their toolkit because improv in itself is nerve-wracking.

So many people say that they take it to get out of their comfort zone or scare themselves or just, like I said, get better at speaking. The classes were vital because they don’t want to come in and prepare. They want to learn how to do it so that they can be good at it. Nobody has ever come in and said, “I want to learn improv but I’m already better than Level 1 and Level 2.” It doesn’t happen. People want to learn from people that they respect.

WILLIAM: Now, let’s just change the topic a little bit and go back to marketing for a moment. With improv, what is the best way that you found to fill your seats? Have you found that students from the classes are going to come to your shows and that’s how you fill them up, or are you filling them up with the majority of the seats with the public, or is it kind of a mix between the two?

ANN-LISETTE: It’s definitely a mix between the two, but, yeah, there’s a couple of things that we’ve done to help fill the seats. For instance, recently, in our last couple of terms and for basically now on, we have offered with students, they get free admission to every show during their 7-week term or during the term of their class.

That encourages them and says, hey, do not do anything, come see an improv show because you can learn so much from seeing it, especially once you start learning it, that’s kind of part of learning is we have classes every week and so, it’s beneficial to have class on Saturday from 1 to 3, Level 1 class, and then, if you’re not doing anything that night, come to the shows and see those techniques being implemented and see what’s being referenced in class hours earlier, see it being put on stage, and that really, really helps.

We had not been doing that for our first five years. I feel like it was such a great idea because it’s not only that, but we can advertise, “Oh, that’s a $700 value because it’s $10 to each show.”

So, one of the ways is definitely having students come see our shows, but they only make up maybe five or six people a night, not much, maybe more. We also have the student shows. After their 7-week term, they get to put on a student show. And of course, they invite their friends and family to that.

So, that is really helpful, too, to get new people on the door, new people who haven’t seen improv that have never heard of it, never normally might come to see an improv show, but their coworker, who’s the funny guy at the office is in an improv show, so they know it’s going to be hilarious and they should come, or their friend or family, whatever. People are coming out to see their friends and family because they’ve put so much work into this improv class.

But, I would say the number one thing that we’ve really been focusing on to really fill the seats is delivering a quality comedy product because there’s not that many comedy places, comedy clubs, or anything around Oklahoma City. There are two or three, basically, and everyone knows the Looney Bin, you go there for stand-up.

We are trying to offer an alternative and I don’t know the exact numbers, but basically, they found that if you have a good experience, have fun, enjoy the show, you’re going to tell a few people. But, if you have a bad experience, you’re going to tell even more people.

We don’t want people coming in either getting offended, like they might even at a theatre show or at a racy show or a stand-up show. We don’t want people coming in not having fun. We want it to be a party from the time they walk in to the time they leave.

Another thing that we offer is free birthday admission and if people are celebrating their birthday with us, not only do they get free admission, but they often get a special treat of being put on stage to either have a song sung about them or be serenaded by an improv game or be the center of attention in an improv scene where we compliment them and celebrate them, and we’ve done that.

It’s improv, so we don’t have to plan it out. We have people that come to our show and they mention at the box office that it’s their anniversary and then, next thing you know, after the intermission, we’re offering them an anniversary game and celebration and something fun to do on stage.

So, it’s pretty cool that we have that ability to celebrate and honor people and really give them a one of a kind live local comedy experience every night versus having to stay a little more solemn, like if you were, let’s say, you were doing a play that was a drama.

We celebrate everything and we want the whole night to be a party so that people will go tell other people about it and bring them back. So, I would say, definitely the quality of our shows is the main thing we’re focused on when it comes to filling the seats.

WILLIAM: And to wrap this up, for event producers, what’s one technique that they can go out and start doing today to help increase their ticket sales?

ANN-LISETTE: Well, definitely, we found a lot of success with our Facebook advertising. We have advertised in different mediums, you know, newspaper, TV, radio, and stuff like that, but even though my personal belief on Facebook is that it’s a necessary evil and sometimes it can be a negative source of energy, but it is actually one of the forefronts of pop culture right now, even though some people are on it or some people don’t like it or some people on it too much.

But, basically, that’s where a lot of stuff is being talked about. That’s basically the water cooler of the world because that’s where people express their opinions and they can say whatever they want. And so, if you have good shows and you are able to find success with Facebook, that’s great.

But, if you have a bad show, it might end up on Facebook later, you know, if somebody said I went to this show or they comment on our page or what have you. We want people doing the opposite. We want people sharing their photos with us that they took at the show.

We want people using our hash tags, and I shouldn’t say just Facebook because I really do mean social media, I mean, we’re on Twitter, we’re on Instagram, we’re on Facebook, all on OKC Improv. And, those three things are very powerful right now.

I personally try not to use them because I’m a very private person. But, in general, they are very powerful means of communication and that’s where a lot of people go for their news and their information. People these days are less and less reading papers and watching TV. They fast forward to the commercials or they watch streaming things.

Even if you’re not on Facebook or even if you don’t check it, you still hear about the stuff that people are talking about on Facebook, or on Instagram, or on Twitter. And so, that’s a huge source of information for a lot of people.

A lot of people go to social media to find out, “Oh, what am I going to do this weekend? What are my friends doing? Who should I hang out with tonight?” “I’m off Friday night, what should I do?” These people are getting online and they’re trying to find stuff to do.

And so, we have really dug in to the power of social media and I feel like we’re having a decent amount of success out of it because, like I said, at the shows, people are saying they heard about us on Facebook, or Instagram, or something because somebody else posted or something like that.

So, I would just say that unfortunately and fortunately, social media is super powerful right now and that’s been our biggest ally recently when it comes to that kind of stuff.

WILLIAM: A quick question about Facebook, do you use Facebook groups, or Facebook pages, or do you use both? Do you think one might work better than the other?

ANN-LISETTE: We have an internal private secret Facebook improv community groups, so that’s things that we can post information for each other, cool articles that we read or pictures, whatever. That’s also a community. We have a Facebook group page. No one else can see it, but only if you’re an improviser, you have to be added to that group by a staff member.

So, that is our biggest form of communication with our troupes and with our improvisers saying, hey, come do this work shop, come to the shows. Here’s where you can sign up for a free workshop or here’s where you can do this.

Our Facebook page OKC Improv is great, too. The only thing that is troubling about that is because of Facebook’s algorithms and the way it works, just because we have over 7,000 likes, if we post, not 7,000 are going to see it, not even close to that.

The only thing is that our page it’s like you have to have the right activity and the right information to set off the algorithm so that people see your page. And to be honest, sometimes, you have to pay for it. Again, that’s unfortunate, but it works. If you pay Facebook, then more people see your information and it’s quite literally an ad, and a lot of people are seeing that ad. Then they will screenshot it, or like it, or click that they’re interested, or going to the event.

So, I would say use a group and we use group messaging between our staff, but the Facebook page, the OKC Improv Facebook page is what we use the most when it comes to getting information out to people about our shows.

WILLIAM: Ann-Lisette, thanks for coming on the show. How do we keep up with you and your shows?

ANN-LISETTE: Well, like I said, Facebook doesn’t like to show everybody everything, so the best way to keep up with OKC Improv is to go straight to our website okcimprov.com. On that page, you can actually, if you want to stay caught up, you can enter your email address and keep up with our email. We don’t spam, but we do send out emails letting you know about our shows pretty much weekly.

We do have shows for every Friday and Saturday night right now and so, that would be the best way to stay on top of shows, when classes starts, and when there’s special events that we can do. So, it’s okcimprov.com and of course, you can follow us on any other social media at okcimprov on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

WILLIAM: Okay. Excellent. That will be on the show notes. Thanks a lot for coming on.

ANN-LISETTE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Show Notes:

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